Essays / Experience Required

Messing Up the Drawing Room: Wharton, Olsen, and the Quest for Validation

by Jessica Levine

1.

In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton recounts her initiation into writing:

My first attempt (at the age of eleven) was a novel, which began: “Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?” said Mrs. Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.” Timorously I submitted this to my mother and never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.”

The episode foreshadowed much of the struggle of this writer, whose first short story appeared at age 29 and was then followed by intermissions of “nervous exhaustion” and by detours away from fiction, such as a book about interior design, The Decoration of Houses. Her sustained literary output only began in 1898, when she was 37 and was asked to put together her first collection of short stories. Her first major work, The House of Mirth, appeared in 1905, when she was 43.

Edith grew up in a time and place of literary constriction. The American literary establishment had taken the Young Girl as its ideal audience: all writing was expected to be as clean as drawing room conversation, avoiding controversial or “unpleasant” topics such as sex and politics. Edith’s mother, Lucretia Jones, took Old New York’s prudish rejection of fiction to extremes, not allowing her daughter to read any fiction besides Scott and Irving. Thankfully, her father’s library provided nourishment in the form of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights and the essays and poetry of Shelley, Poe, Emerson, and others. Without the home library, she would have been in a desert, for, like most young ladies of her era, Edith received no formal education. Moreover, New York was at the time anti-intellectual—Philadelphia and Boston were the leaders culturally. In short, neither the familial nor cultural environment was propitious for a young writer, especially a woman, who would later do her best to expose and undo—to untidy—the drawing rooms of her youth with satirical portraits that exposed the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisies of the world she grew up in.

2.

Wharton’s literary delays and detours comforted me in the 1990s as I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her fiction and Henry James’s. I was in my mid-thirties and had deferred my own creative journey when I decided to go to graduate school. Before starting the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, I had written some poetry, a couple of novellas, and a novel, which I had briefly circulated then withdrawn at the first criticisms. I had wanted to be a writer since childhood, but my skin was not thick enough for the early rejections, the pain of which I remember clearly: my first short story, written in crayon at the age of six, was torn apart by a critical, teen-age cousin who read it. Another story, written a few years later and imprudently shown to my mother, was criticized for its poor punctuation. In high school, my grades in English were disappointing. College English went no better. With each rebuff, my creative writing became more secretive, and the idea of ever being published went further underground. Fortunately, through studying Wharton and other women writers, I would later create for myself an ancestral line of personal and fictional stories that would guide my own.

3.

Having intimates who believe in you can be a saving grace. This was especially true for Wharton, whose writing career was an uncomfortable subject at the New York dinner parties she hosted and attended as a young wife. Her husband, Teddy Wharton, lacked the intellect and culture to read and appreciate her work: “I am no good on Puss’s high plain of thought,” he famously once said, using the childhood nickname for Wharton that followed her into adulthood. Fortunately, Wharton was able to surround herself with admiring friends, most of them male, who appreciated her talent. Her friendship with Walter Berry, who began encouraging her in 1898 when she was putting together the first volume of short stories, would support her throughout her life. Henry James would be another key figure, although there was the downside that many saw Wharton as his pupil, a kind of lesser-because-female version of James—a condescending view Wharton resented bitterly. “[T]he continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James,” she wrote to William Brownell, “(whose books of the last ten years I can’t read, much as I delight in the man), and the assumption that the people I write about are not ‘real’ because they are not navvies and char-women, makes me feel rather hopeless.”

4.

Tillie Olsen's book, Silences (courtesy Random House)Might Wharton’s creative maturation been more rapid if she’d had greater access to fiction during her formative years? Perhaps not. As a young reader, I’d had opportunities she hadn’t, yet it took me decades to finish my first publishable novel. Attending a French school in New York City, I had, by the age of 15, voraciously consumed much of Flaubert, Balzac, and Zola. As a teenager I joyfully explored New York’s wonderful libraries, plunging into the novels of the American and British canons. But almost everything I read was by men. Even as I dreamed of being a writer, I couldn’t see how I might fit in with the tradition I was immersed in as a reader.

Then I found Tillie Olsen’s Silences, a collection of essays written in the 1960s and published in 1978, that examined both the requirements for a creative life and the obstructions, specifically gender, race, and socioeconomic class: creativity, according to Olsen, suffers from lack of time when one needs to make a living, or one’s concentration may be fragmented by family life. Most destructive is the literary establishment’s opinion that one’s experience doesn’t count if one is working class, of color, or female. One of the preconditions of creativity, Olsen argues, is the feeling that we are part of a stream: if we cannot find our own experiences and concerns mirrored anywhere in literature, we may feel that what we want to express has no value. Olsen quotes Elaine Showalter who wrote, in an essay on the absence of women writers in college curricula in the 1970s: “Women [students] are estranged from their own experience and unable to perceive its shape and authenticity, in part because they do not see it mirrored and given resonance in literature . . . They are expected to identify with masculine experience.”

Olsen argues that it can be difficult to write if there is not already a tradition of writers who have given value to similar experiences. Of course, the irony is that the writers we best remember are often the ones who address new subjects, often with shocking frankness.

5.

Today, with the explosion of multicultural voices and the blossoming of women’s writing, it’s easy to forget how much has changed since Tillie Olsen published Silences. Yet it can still be difficult to feel validated as a writer if one does not fit in to an already established category—or even if you do. A Mexican friend of mine was recently asked at a party about the novel she’s working on. After describing her compelling multi-generational story of a Mexican mother and daughter, her interlocutor rudely asked, “But do we need another Isabel Allende?” The put-down not only ignored the differences between Latin American cultures (Allende is Chilean), but also the variety of voices within those cultures. It suggested, idiotically, that one representative voice per continent might be enough and revealed the dangers of prioritizing the construction of a canon at the expense of celebrating multiplicity and individuality.

I had just graduated from college when I first read Olsen, who helped me appreciate the courage and originality of the women’s fiction I encountered at Wellesley. Decades later, I still have a vivid memory of the new and startling intimacy of scenes from books I read then: the arrival of a woman’s menstrual period in The Golden Notebook (1962) by Doris Lessing; an extramarital encounter shortly after the birth of a child in The Waterfall (1969) by Margaret Drabble; and the graphic and beautiful descriptions of lesbian sex, with its celebration of the female body in Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown. Women writers of the 21st century owe much to these pioneers, who explored new terrain as they took the tradition of the psychological novel and expanded it to include the experience of female embodiment.

6.

After publishing her first volume of stories, Wharton wrote an historical novel, The Valley of Decision, which was, like The Decoration of Houses, a detour from writing about relationships and class in the worlds she knew. The Valley of Decision, set in 18th-century Italy, recounts the life of Odo, heir of Mantua, who, upon becoming duke, attempts to institute a constitution that would bring about liberalizing reforms. Wharton did a huge amount of research for this work. This ambitious project, spurred by a desire for intellectual legitimacy and approval, would have had its roots in anxiety of influence and frail self-esteem. To be stepping onto the literary scene in competition with men who had had formal education must have been daunting. By beginning with a couple of books requiring so much learning, Wharton was likely trying to establish her cultural credentials for the provincial, male establishment of her time.

In retrospect, I see the nine years I spent working on my Ph.D. as a similar kind of detour, a quest for a lineage that might give me a right to speak. After graduate school, I continued working through these issues in my novel, The Geometry of Love, in which the protagonist, Julia, has stopped writing poetry. She lacks positive female role models and is overwhelmed by the sense that writing can’t possibly fit in with any of her other goals or needs, like the need to make a living or have children. When her father suggests that she might write poetry on the way to work, the way Wallace Stevens did, she muses:

Well, I wasn’t Stevens. If I had been born a decade or two later I might have been able to imagine combining raising kids, writing, and having a business. But at the time I thought these paths were mutually exclusive and combining even two things from my list seemed like a recipe for a nervous breakdown. The way I saw it, Sylvia Plath hadn’t stuck her head in the oven because she was mentally ill, but because she was overwhelmed and her husband kept disappearing. I didn’t have the female role models to help me be a supermom multitasker.

Ultimately Julia comes into her own as a poet through her love for a composer friend, who acts as her muse. A struggling musician, Michael lacks both the time to write music and the stability to attract a partner. Yet, through loving Julia, he comes back into his musical voice, and by modeling dedication to his art, inspires Julia to do so in turn. They overcome obstacles in order to come into a total commitment to each other that nurtures them both personally and creatively. Writing this love story brought me deeper into my own commitment to not only write but to also take my work into the world, whatever obstacles I might encounter on the way.

Bloom Post End

 

Jessica Levine is the author of The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014) and Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002). Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many publications including The Southern Review, The Huffington Post, and North American Review. She normally lives in Berkeley, California, but is about to move to Paris for a year where she will be blogging about French culture at jessicalevine.com/paris/

Homepage Image courtesy The Awl

One thought on “Messing Up the Drawing Room: Wharton, Olsen, and the Quest for Validation

  1. Pingback: 97. READ.LOOK.THINK. | JESSICA STANLEY.

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